Clinton signs welfare reform President says flaws can be fixed, calls it a good beginning

August 23, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a White House ceremony shunned by his fellow Democratic leaders on the eve of the party's national convention in Chicago, President Clinton yesterday signed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's welfare laws.

"Today we are ending welfare as we know it," Clinton said, echoing his 1992 campaign promise.

"We're going to take this historic chance to try to re-create the nation's social bargain with the poor. We're going to see if we can't create a system of incentives which reinforce work and family and independence."

But the president, keenly aware that this issue has divided his party, added: "I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended but for what it began, a new day that offers hope, honors responsibility, rewards work and changes the terms of the debate."

The new law gives authority for running welfare to the states, cuts immigrants off from a host of anti-poverty programs and requires recipients to get a job within two years of going on relief.

It ends a 60-year federal guarantee of welfare for women who have children but no husbands, and it was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress over the fierce objections of liberal groups that form the core of the Democratic Party.

One of those groups, the National Organization for Women, demonstrated vocally in front of the White House while Clinton spoke in the Rose Garden.

"No veto, no vote," they chanted. NOW President Patricia Ireland told reporters she wouldn't "lift a finger" to support Clinton's re-election.

"This isn't welfare reform, it's welfare denial," Sen. Paul Simon complained in a statement. The Illinois Democrat did not attend yesterday's ceremony.

In fact, the only senator who did was John B. Breaux, a centrist Democrat from Louisiana.

No congressional leaders of either party were present, and White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the White House didn't invite the leaders because it didn't want to put the Democrats in an embarrassing position.

Prominent liberals insisted that the president -- and congressional Republicans who shaped this new law -- have a lot be embarrassed about.

"This harsh legislation is not about work," said Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority. "Job creation is nowhere in this punitive act."

AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney implored the president to veto it, and the American Civil Liberties Union sent impassioned letters complaining about cutoff of legal immigrants from some benefits.

At Clinton's birthday celebration in New York on Sunday, three events, including a private dinner, were interrupted by demonstrators chanting, "Shame! Shame!"

Yesterday, Republicans, too, threw stones at the president.

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida, one of the Republican congressmen in attendance, objected strenuously to a waiver granted recently by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala exempting Washington, D.C., from the new bill's two-years-and-out work requirements for welfare recipients -- for the next 10 years.

The Dole campaign issued a statement accusing the president of being "ideologically adrift" and of "selling out his own party." It added, on a somewhat different tack, that it was the Republican Congress that really deserves credit for the new law.

Clinton's response in New York -- and his response yesterday -- ** was to remind those upset by the law that he signed it only after insisting that Republicans put billions of dollars into it for job training and child care, and to maintain that he will work to "fix" what he sees as the bill's flaws, including the immigration provisions.

"We can change what is wrong," he said. "We should not have passed this historic opportunity to do what is right."

In presenting this legislation as a beginning, instead of an end, to dealing with the problem of integrating the chronically poor into America's economic life, Clinton also challenged the governors and the nation's business leaders.

"The governors asked for this responsibility -- now they've got to live up to it," the president said. "Every employer in this country that ever made a disparaging remark about the welfare system needs to think about whether he or she should now hire somebody from welfare and go to work.

"Go to the state and say, 'OK, you give me the check, I'll use it as an income supplement, I'll train these people, I'll help them to start their lives.' And we'll go forward from here."

Where Clinton goes from here is a four-day train trip, beginning Sunday and ending in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention.

White House officials said that at points along the way -- and in his speech Thursday night to the delegates -- Clinton will outline a series of proposals designed to help those facing the transition from welfare to work.

White House officials said that one such idea is tax credits for businesses that hire workers from the welfare rolls. That provision is already included in the administration's proposed 1997 budget, and Clinton is expected to draw attention to it in Chicago.

Yesterday, hoping to draw attention to the ultimate goal of reform, Clinton shared the podium with Lillie Harden, a former welfare mother from Arkansas.

She thanked him publicly for job training programs 10 years ago when then-Governor Clinton was chairing a task force on welfare reform for the National Governors Association.

"I was conducting this meeting and I said, 'Lillie, what's the best thing about being off welfare?' " Clinton said, recalling that long-ago presentation.

"And she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'When my boy goes to school and they say what does your mama do for a living, he can give an answer.' "

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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